NervGen CFO: Dig Into Strategy

In a small, but fast growing biotech, the CFO, like all other C-suite members, wears multiple hats. Finance chief Bill Adams shares how he manages a broadening role.

William Adams, CFO, NervGen Pharma Corp.

Bill Adams’s extensive finance experience, especially in early-stage life science companies, is critical to NervGen Pharma  as the Vancouver, Canada-based company creates new therapies for spinal cord injury and neurodegenerative diseases. In an interview, Adams shares how he is contributing to NervGen’s budding growth and the broadening of the CFO role.

Tell me about your experience in M&A, operations and the capital markets in both U.S. and Canada.

Over the last 25 years or so I’ve served at both public and private companies, primarily life sciences companies. I’ve joined companies with just 10 or 15 employees, looking for early-stage financing. Companies also hire me for my experience in raising capital, mergers and acquisitions, and helping companies go public, both in the U.S. and in Canada. I also help companies build their organization and administrative team, and I work with other managers within the team to grow all aspects of the organization.

What is NervGen Pharma’s current growth strategy?

The company is pre-clinical, looking to be in clinical trials first in Australia, and then in the US and other jurisdictions. We’ve got lots of applications of our drug in a number of different therapeutic areas that could help people with nerve damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis to name a few. The challenge is how to finance and ramp up growth to explore all those potential applications at the same time.

We have a two-pronged approach – funding ourselves for the clinical trials of the spinal cord injury and MS applications, and also applying for grant funding from agencies for some of the other disease areas.

How closely do you work with CEO Paul Brennan?

For me, it’s critical to be in partnership with the CEO, because the company is so small that we have to wear multiple hats and we need to work really well as a team — each of us has no time to double-check everything the other is doing. We work in tandem, making sure both of us are pushing the ball forward, making sure we’re getting everything done with the resources we have.

What is your recruitment strategy for finance talent?

The key is having people with experience to help move the company ahead as we develop processes and systems. It’s good to have a vision of what that looks like, so you know whom best to bring in. You also need to put enough goals in place for your team to be able to meet the requirements of the capital markets and regulators. But as we build compliance processes, we also want to be careful not to stifle creativity with too much administration, especially with the scientific staff.

What do you believe is the changing role of the finance chief?

The CFO has been historically viewed as the spreadsheet person, the numbers person, making sure all of the financial procedures are in place. That’s still super important, but the role has broadened to be more of a business partner to the rest of the management team – putting a financial lens on all aspects of the company. For life science companies, particularly those in pre-revenue stage, a lot of decisions across the company are based on how long the cash will last. I support the team in their determination of the best way to get the best answer with the resources that we have available.

What else should CFOs these days be thinking about?

You should take the time to talk to people across the company, to really understand the strategy going forward. The more you learn from other people, the more you understand the company, and the better you can communicate the strategy to investors, analysts and shareholders.